In El Sal­vador, killings rise amid rub­ble of truce

Gangs make March the dead­li­est month in 10 years

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Tracy Wilkin­son

SAN SAL­VADOR — Dr. Os­car Qui­jano touched his pinky to the hole in the head of the lat­est skele­ton brought to the metal slab be­fore him.

It was clear she had been killed “in a vi­o­lent way,” Qui­jano said as he ex­am­ined the skull of one of the many peo­ple slain de­spite a con­tro­ver­sial, now-bro­ken “truce” be­tween El Sal­vador’s most pow­er­ful street gangs.

The foren­sic spe­cial­ists here in the Sal­vado­ran cap­i­tal are rou­tinely called to clan­des­tine graves hold­ing mul­ti­ple corpses, or to neigh­bor­hoods where bod­ies have been dumped on the side­walk. March was the dead­li­est month in a decade, ac­cord­ing to tal­lies by the Prensa Grafica news­pa­per: 16 killings a day in a coun­try with far fewer peo­ple than Los An­ge­les County.

The truce, bro­kered with the gov­ern­ment’s nod, was praised in some quar­ters for sig­nif­i­cantly re­duc­ing El Sal­vador’s of­fi­cial homi­cide rate, which, along with that of neigh­bor­ing Hon­duras, was the high­est in the hemi­sphere.

Some in El Sal­vador be­lieve gangs used the truce, which broke down af­ter lit­tle more than a year, as cover to con­sol­i­date and grow. And they ques­tion whether vi­o­lence truly ebbed as much as sug­gested, not­ing that homi­cides may have de­clined but dis­ap­pear­ances in­creased.

To­day, ri­val gangs — descen­dants of the Mara Sal­va­trucha and oth­ers de­ported from the United States in the 1990s — con­trol en­tire neigh­bor­hoods, able to ex­act pro­tec­tion money, hold ad hoc tri­bunals and de­cide where res­i­dents can live and busi­nesses can op­er­ate.

They act es­sen­tially, an­a­lysts say, as a par­al­lel gov­ern­ment.

And the killings con­tinue to mount, as they battle for pieces of a drug-traf­fick­ing busi­ness that has ex­panded with the ar­rival of Mex­i­can car­tels.

In Qui­jano’s lab at the state-run Legal Medicine In­sti­tute on a re­cent day, half a dozen metal ta­bles dis­played the bones of some of the lat­est dis­cov­ered vic­tims, all thought to have died as long as a year ago. The re­mains were pulled from hid­den graves, the more shal­lowly buried ex­hibit­ing the teeth marks of dogs or other an­i­mals.

Some vic­tims, like the young woman whose skull Qui­jano was ex­am­in­ing, had been shot; the cause of death of oth­ers was not yet clear.

“If we find them in a clan­des­tine grave, we as­sume their death was a vi­o­lent one,” Qui­jano said.

The lat­est group of 30 bod­ies re­flected the cur­rent de­mo­graphic of the dead, he said: About 60% were 16 to 22 years old, and of those at least 30% were fe­male. Ac­cord­ing to in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions, El Sal­vador has be­come the re­gion’s dead­li­est coun­try for youths and women.

“The age is steadily get­ting lower,” said Dr. Saul Qui­jada, an­other of the foren­sic physi­cians.

The team be­lieves it has only be­gun to scratch the sur­face; ad­di­tional hid­den graves could con­tain hun­dreds of bod­ies. And, as has hap­pened in Bos­nia and else­where, the gangs here of­ten dig up and move bod­ies if they know in­ves­ti­ga­tors are closing in, Qui­jada said.

“We don’t even ex­hume many of the graves,” Qui­jada said.

In scenes rem­i­nis­cent of El Sal­vador’s 1980-92 civil war, in which se­cu­rity forces and death squads rou­tinely made op­po­nents dis­ap­pear, clus­ters of fran­tic, weep­ing rel­a­tives ar­rive at the morgue steadily in search of miss­ing fam­ily mem­bers. To­day the gangs are added to the mix of cul­prits.

Typ­i­cally, the be­seech­ing rel­a­tives are shown pic­tures of corpses in at­tempts to get an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. Out­side, fam­i­lies have hung pho­to­graphs of the miss­ing on bul­letin boards.

Marvin Ruiz, a 23-yearold sol­dier, dis­ap­peared while on a mo­tor­cy­cle ride a cou­ple of weeks ago.

“We’ve come here [to the morgue] a lot, and two times last week af­ter they said they’d found a body, but it’s pure bones,” said his mother, Maria Ju­lia Du­gon.

She said the gangs that con­trol so much of the coun­try are in­creas­ingly tar­get­ing sol­diers and po­lice of­fi­cers, an as­ser­tion borne out by of­fi­cial statis­tics. “Our lives have been sold out by this sit­u­a­tion of vi­o­lence,” she said.

San­dra Ava­los sat on the front steps of the morgue, sob­bing and retch­ing. Her 18-year-old son Chris­tian, who works in a bak­ery, had not re­turned home for two days. They live in one of many neigh­bor­hoods con­trolled by a gang, and she feared the worst.

“We al­ready checked at the po­lice and he hasn’t been ar­rested,” she said, be­fore break­ing down again.

The Sal­vado­ran po­lice reg­is­tered 2,392 miss­ing peo­ple last year (only 456 reap­peared alive), and the pace this year is about the same.

The gang “truce” of­fi­cially be­gan with a much­pub­li­cized re­li­gious cer­e­mony by im­pris­oned lead­ers of the two main gangs, MS-13 (the Mara Sal­va­trucha) and the 18th Street gang, in March 2012. It had been ne­go­ti­ated un­der the aus­pices of for­mer guer­ril­las of the now-rul­ing Farabundo Marti Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion Front and a prelate from the Ro­man Catholic Church.

The gov­ern­ment of thenPres­i­dent Mauri­cio Funes at first de­nied, then was forced to ac­knowl­edge, par­tic­i­pa­tion in the ne­go­ti­a­tions.

In ex­change for hold­ing fire, the gangs were granted trans­fer of their lead­ers from a max­i­mum-se­cu­rity pri­son to jails closer to their fam­i­lies — and their foot sol­diers — with ex­pand­ing visi­ta­tion and ac­cess to cell­phones.

From its in­cep­tion, the truce was con­tro­ver­sial, crit­i­cized by many in law en­force­ment, the legal estab­lish­ment and con­ser­va­tive sec­tors, all of whom ob­jected to ne­go­ti­at­ing with crim­i­nals.

Homi­cide rates ini­tially dropped, then, about a year later, be­gan to rise again, along with the vo­cal crit­i­cism of op­po­nents. The truce for­mally broke down in May 2013.

Early this year, Pres­i­dent Sal­vador Sanchez Ceren seemed to close the door per­ma­nently on ef­forts to re­new a truce by trans­fer­ring the gang lead­ers back to the max­i­mum-se­cu­rity lockup at Za­cate­caluca.

Raul Mi­jango, a for­mer guer­rilla and leg­is­la­tor who was one of the chief truce ne­go­tia­tors, said the gov­ern­ment was mak­ing a ter­ri­ble mis­take by end­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of talks with the gangs, cit­ing elec­toral pol­i­tics for the move and say­ing that vi­o­lence would only soar out of con­trol. Sanchez Ceren or­dered the trans­fer a few days be­fore midterm elec­tions, ap­peal­ing to vot­ers by ap­pear­ing tough on gangs, an­a­lysts said.

Mi­jango de­nied the crit­i­cism that gangs had used the truce to strengthen and ex­pand. But, he ac­knowl­edged, “theirs is a power par­al­lel” to that of the state.

That power has reached into ev­ery sphere of Sal­vado­ran so­ci­ety.

At a gritty school named for a gov­ern­ment min­is­ter slain in the civil war, chil­dren of mem­bers of both gangs at­tend class, care­fully nav­i­gat­ing the ter­ri­tory just across the street con­trolled by the 18th Street gang.

Ale­jan­dra, a 9-year-old wear­ing the school uni­form of a white blouse, navy skirt and white knee socks, said she knows how to reach the school by lat­eral al­ley­ways, never us­ing the main road that is un­der 18th Street con­trol.

Her fam­ily mem­bers are in a gang, she said, and her brother was re­cently killed. They en­dure rou­tine po­lice raids. “They ar­rive and take a lot of the boys away,” she said. “They took my dad.”

Her teacher, Gla­dys Garcia, said that ev­ery­one treads care­fully at the school, but that the gangs gen­er­ally leave it alone be­cause they want their chil­dren to be ed­u­cated. But for­get the PTA. Only an oc­ca­sional mom or, more likely, grand­par­ents dare show up at the school in en­emy ter­ri­tory, Garcia said.

The pres­ence of sol­diers or the po­lice for the last five years has done lit­tle to set­tle the at­mos­phere.

The gangs “feel like they are the author­ity, and can do what they want,” she said.

Prin­ci­pal Almicar Rivera has been work­ing at the school for 22 years. Ex­cept for the bod­ies left on the side­walk, or the sev­en­th­grader who threat­ened to kill him the other day, or the knowl­edge that he dare not ex­pel a stu­dent, not to men­tion the regular extortion pay­ments, Rivera says he gets along just fine.

His nick­name for the place? Viet­nam. Why?

“Be­cause Viet­nam also was a war that could not be won.”

‘We’ve come [to the morgue] a lot, and two times last week af­ter they said they’d found a body, but it’s pure bones.’ — Maria Ju­lia Du­gon, search­ing for her miss­ing son

Sal­vador Me­len­dez As­so­ci­ated Press

SPE­CIAL FORCES de­tain a man in a gang area of San Juan Opico. Some be­lieve the gangs used the truce, ap­proved by the gov­ern­ment, to con­sol­i­date and grow.

Sal­vador Me­len­dez As­so­ci­ated Press

FOREN­SIC WORK­ERS pre­pare to trans­port the body of a man killed by gun­men in El Cobanal. Teams are rou­tinely called to clan­des­tine mass graves or places where bod­ies have been dumped on a side­walk.

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